Personal shame, stigma and doing good: Incoming president of the National Council of Social Service Anita Fam goes On the Record

Personal shame, stigma and doing good: Incoming president of the National Council of Social Service Anita Fam goes On the Record

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Anita Fam was recently appointed President of the National Council of Social Service. (Photo: NCSS)

SINGAPORE: Anita Fam is well-known in the social service sector as a former lawyer who, more than 20 years ago, became a full-time volunteer in the areas of disability, palliative care, family, healthcare and mental health.

Her dedication saw her recently appointed President of the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), a role she takes on formally on Aug 1. 

From the get-go in our conversation she concedes that she is among the privileged few who can afford to volunteer full-time as she doesn't have financial constraints that others do. 

But she also reveals that, in a way, she has been part of the sector since she was born.

It’s a story she says she doesn’t tell very often and it’s related to the fact that she is an adopted child, something her mother disclosed to her when she was four years old.

“It’s so important to tell your kids that they are adopted,” says Ms Fam. 

“If they find out one day in a way they never expected to, it could be the most devastating thing. They need to be told that they were intentionally sought out and wanted by their adoptive parents. Then, one feels special because you’re being chosen as opposed to in another situation, where they might think about it in terms of having been given up by their biological parent.”

To listen to the full interview, click here.

Recently, she found her birth certificate among her parents’ belongings and it revealed more information about her birth mother.

“She was single and 19 years old at the time. The birth certificate said ‘Care of: The Salvation Army’ which is an organisation in the social service sector. I was sharing this with a fellow board member in NCSS and he was the one who said, ‘Wah, do you realise you’ve come one full circle? You started your life in the social service sector.’

"It seems divinely planned that I’ve come back into this area to give back.”

I ask if she ever felt like seeking out her birth mother. Her normally self-assured and positive voice softens as she tells me she would “rather not”.

“If you think about it, if she was single then, she probably didn’t want many people to know about it. She might be a grandmother or a great-grandmother now with her own family and the last thing she’d want is someone to come out of the blue and bring out something that she might have kept a secret all her life. I wouldn’t want to spoil someone’s life or disturb it.

“I look back now and I think that’s so brave of her to have gone through something like this at 19 and in the early 60s.”

Her adoptive parents’ love also assured her enough not to go seeking parental love elsewhere. 

A POWERFUL TRANSITION

She might have had her roots in the social services sector but her conscious involvement in it came much later in life.

In her mid-thirties, she decided to take a career break from the legal sector to look after her one-year-old daughter.

A phone call from activist, Leaena Tambyah of the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA), an organisation for which Ms Fam had previously done pro bono legal work, changed everything.

Ms Tambyah, who was instrumental in setting up a playgroup for children with disabilities, which eventually grew to become the AWWA School, asked Ms Fam to be vice-chair of a mobile therapy service called Therapy and Education for Children in Mainstream Education (TEACH ME). This provided assistance to children whose parents could not afford the money or the time for therapy sessions in hospitals.

“I think she just saw me as someone who was young and had some free time on her hands,” says Ms Fam laughingly.

She is quick to add that the experience was a powerful one.

“AWWA provided multiple services in areas of eldercare, family, disability, special education and with every single area, the financing is different, the programming is different, so I was able to get a far better understanding of the intricacies of the funding and programming in these various areas.”

This led to her sitting on numerous boards over the years and spoken up passionately about society’s needs.

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Anita Fam receiving the NCSS flag from outgoing NCSS President, Mr Hsieh Fu Hua. (Photo: NCSS)

THE SHAME OF MENTAL ILLNESS – “I FELT AS IF I WOULD EXPLODE”

One of the areas she is particularly concerned with is mental health and the stigma associated with mental illnesses.

Her own parents have, at various stages of their lives, been afflicted by depression and anxiety disorders.

“My first encounter with depression was when I was 18 years old and my dad slipped into a very deep clinical depression. In those days, no one talked about it.”

Her father, Michael Fam, was a prominent figure in Singapore society having been chairman of the Housing and Development Board, then chairman of the Mass Rapid Transit Corporation.

At that stage, he had retired and the emptiness of having no vocation was too difficult for him to handle. 

“I remember my mum coming into my room and telling me not to tell a soul. She told me I was not to tell even my brother. It was a very frightening thing because I was studying for my ‘A’ levels and there was no one I could turn to. My dad used to spend a lot of time with me. He used to come into my room, sit on my bed and weep. I had to bottle this up when I was 18. I felt as if I would explode, it was awful.”

Later that year, she couldn’t handle it by herself and wrote to her brother who was studying abroad at the time. She told him what was going on.

Her father eventually sought help and counselling and medication helped him overcome his depression within six months. 

“I would never have talked about this while he was alive because he would have felt the stigma, but when my father passed away in 2014, I felt by sharing it I would help others.”

Today, she hopes more would share while they are going through or recovering from such difficulties.

"We need to talk about these things more openly and realise that there’s nothing taboo about it. The problem is, sometimes there are negative consequences. There’s so much stigma attached to it that if someone knew that you’ve had a history of mental illness, they don’t want to employ you. We need to change that. Just because you’ve had a history of it, doesn’t mean that it’s going to affect your performance in the workplace.”

To help do this, NCSS has been working on a peer support scheme for persons in recovery.

“These are persons with lived experiences. They’ve actually been down the road where they’ve had mental health challenges and they’ve come out of it and they can be mentors to others in the workplace. So it helps the employers to understand because these peers can actually explain to their employers what the journey would look like and they can be a mentor for the person who’s come back into the workforce.”

Her mother too suffered from mental health issues - an anxiety disorder for most of her life and, towards the end, Alzheimer’s disease.

“I was her main caregiver. I organised everything in her life – her doctors’ visits, her activities.”

She was fortunate enough to have assistance. She hired a helper and her husband and children also played a part in “adding normality” to her mother’s life.

“You are dealing with a person whom you don’t know anymore. The elements are so different. There are no more filters and it’s an entirely different person. The advice given to me by a very dear friend who had walked on that road, a few steps ahead of me, was to enter their world. Don’t fight it. It’s their reality. Don’t try and add logic or try and say, ‘No it’s daytime’ when they think it’s night-time.

“So when she’d ask me where her mom and dad were, I wouldn’t say they died a long time ago. I’d just say that they are not here. She also used to think that I was her sister, Joyce.”

Ms Fam would embrace that role because it made her mother happy.

IMPROVING ASSISTANCE TO THOSE WHO NEED IT

The experience taught her that those who need care in whichever area – whether financial, social or healthcare assistance – need to be helped more.

“I was fortunate enough to have the ability to get help, to have the means to hire a helper for instance. For others, it may be harder. They need access to information and resources, not only for the ones whom they love, but for themselves. We need to have a one stop portal or stop for information and people to help them navigate the terrain and to know how they can help with services or with the financial aspects.”

She says that the situation has improved today with more Social Service Offices under the Ministry of Social and Family Development being set up island-wide. 

But she also admits that more can be done within the social services sector to ensure that such outreach is done more effectively. One of the keys is having competent manpower.

“This is a big role that I see NCSS playing in equipping organisations so that they can manage manpower and volunteers more effectively. So it’s helping organizations with expertise in training. They also need volunteer managers and we need to train them. We need to help them with systems.”

Investing in such initiatives has helped at least one of the organisations she chairs, the Assisi Hospice.

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Anita Fam with President Halimah Yacob and others at an NCSS dialogue session at the Social Service Institute. (Photo: NCSS)

MANPOWER, FAIR PAY AND VOLUNTEERS

Another issue tied to manpower is salaries.

Salaries across the board in the social services sector need to be “fair”, she says.

I put it to her that some feel those working for such organisations should be doing it out of a sense of mission rather than for financial gain and there is often a concern that those at the top are paid excessively large salaries. 

I ask her how she would define “fair” in this context.

“I would say market rates, private sector market rates or just a little bit below. I personally am blessed to be in that situation where I can be a full-time volunteer but many people have to have jobs to look after their families to support themselves and if you pay them very little, how are they going to live? And if the private sector is much more attractive, why would competent, qualified people come here?

“If you have good quality people who are far more effective in the way they design their programmes, their service deliveries which are far more appropriate to the beneficiaries, you probably can do things in a shorter period of time, more efficiently.  It’s actually a cost-benefit approach that we are looking at." 

The  principle should be applied to personnel at all levels within social service organisations, she says. 

However, she concedes that competence and salaries have to be accompanied by heart.

“Those who don’t have heart won’t stay long anyway, because it can be very emotionally draining work. The CEOs of such organisations especially need to be very in touch with the ground and have the heart for it if they are to lead successfully.”

She also urges more to enter the sector as volunteers.

“I was just looking at some recent stats and now one in three Singaporeans actually volunteer. I’d say that even if you gave one or two days a year, it’s something. You might not be able to volunteer regularly, but you can volunteer sporadically. But I think especially with the millennials now, actually they are far more altruistic. They really want to do good and it is reflected in even their choice of jobs, because they actually want to go into jobs where there is some sort of social good. So I don’t think things are bleak.”

For all this to work, money to keep organisations going and to fund programmes is vital and she advocates more sustainable funding methods.

“In the US, the majority of funders now like to fund endowments. The whole concept of an endowment fund is that you preserve the capital and you spend the interest, so there is sustainability in the funding. So I may contribute an amount to the endowment fund but then I know the legacy of my capital injection will last 20 years or in perpetuity and it provides certainty to the people who use it."

The social services sector is also looking to facilitate greater collaboration and boost service delivery with two new digital initiatives.

The first is an IT system to improve back-end processes. 

Jointly developed by NCSS and Singapore Pools, iShine Cloud provides a suite of integrated IT cloud services which includes office productivity tools, shared storage, human resources and accounting packages, which voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) can enjoy at subsidised rates.

The second initiative is the Social Service Navigator, an interactive online platform and mobile portal that consolidates information on social service providers, programmes and resources all over Singapore to help social service professionals find the resources they need to support their daily work.

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“If I’m able to shape a program or service that allows more people to have a better life, especially in the area of disability or mental health or caregiving or end-of-life care, I’ll die happy," says Anita Fam. (Photo: National Healthcare Group)

CAN THE GOVERNMENT DO MORE?

While the sector continues to evolve, I ask if she feels the Government can do more to help those who don't have the means to access social services. 

While she believes there have been tremendous improvements in this area in the last decade, she says more can be done to help more people access financial assistance and subsidies by recalibrating the eligibility criteria, especially for those in the lower-middle income group.

“When it comes to means-testing for instance. I used to call it 'mean' testing. It was very mean. I think it’s been carefully calibrated to a degree now that I feel it’s slightly less mean for certain families, but my personal opinion is we can be a little bit more generous in how we determine that, so maybe that’s something that Government may think about in time to come.”

“I WAS SELF-ABSORBED. I’M ASHAMED”

As we approach the end of our conversation, she tells me that her involvement in the social service sector has changed her tremendously.

She remembers what she was like before.

“I guess in those days when you were working, what do you want? You want to earn a lot of money. I was a junior partner in a law firm, I didn’t think of anyone except for myself and it didn’t seem wrong to do so. I wasn’t harming anyone. I was basically having a good time. I was self-absorbed. It never occurred to me that there were folks around me who weren’t living the sort of life that I was living.

“I’m ashamed when I look back. Especially when I was in university, I didn’t realise that my fellow classmates were having such a hard time. Some of my classmates in law school had to hold two jobs while studying. I was going to the beach, watching movies. Can you imagine someone slogging his butt off and seeing these other spoilt kids who are just driving around, being able to go to a restaurant and eat without having to count their dollars?”

What she is doing today may not fully make up for the past, but she is intent on “making a difference”.

“If I’m able to shape a program or service that allows more people to have a better life, especially in the area of disability or mental health or caregiving or end-of-life care, I’ll die happy.”

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